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Ilana Spitz Epstein

Why London Needs a Jewish Museum Now

Ilana & Rabbi Daniel Epstein front row, first and second from the left. With the Board of Management of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue, May 2022. (Leivi Saltman (www.leivisaltmanphotography.com))
Ilana & Rabbi Daniel Epstein front row, first and second from the left. With the Board of Management of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue, May 2022. (Leivi Saltman (www.leivisaltmanphotography.com))

Picture this: you’re going about your day, running errands, and suddenly you have three groups of enthusiastic tourists knocking on your front door, eager to experience something Jewish during their visit to London. As the Rabbinic couple at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, this is a regular occurrence for us. We live ‘above the shop’ and find ourselves playing impromptu tour guides, showcasing our beautiful synagogue, sharing our collection of artifacts, and gushing over the breathtaking David Hillman Stained Glass windows, often. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciate the hundreds of tourists that come through our doors each year. We host over 50 school groups from across the UK (and even from France!) each year and the conversation stretches far wider than the prayer sanctuary we use to speak to them. Though most of our itinerant tourists come on Shabbat, the ones that turn up during our non-service hours – morning, noon, and night – are a constant and delicate negotiation. This past week, I needed to explain all about Synagogue security, and why I could not let a group of 24 people through the door for a completely impromptu visit (while juggling groceries and propping open the very heavy synagogue door). But it’s moments like these that make us realize just how desperately London needs a dedicated Jewish museum in the heart of the city. And to add a little twist, the Jewish Museum in Camden Town is closing its doors for a whole five years starting from July 30th, 2023. So, what’s a Jewish tourist or a curious local to do in the meantime?

Front of the Jewish Museum London, in George Street, Camden, London
1 April 2010 © Copyright Graham Hale and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Now, let’s address the question for those who don’t love a museum: why do we even need museums? Are they just another tourist attraction, or do they serve a greater purpose in our ever-evolving society? Museums are more than just fancy buildings with pretty exhibits.

First things first, museums are essential for preserving history and shaping identity. Jewish communities have left an indelible mark on the ongoing narrative and history of the United Kingdom. With a history dating back a thousand years, the contributions of British Jewry in the arts, sciences, commerce, and their unwavering resilience in the face of adversity cannot be overstated. A Jewish museum in London becomes a vital agent in preserving this rich heritage, ensuring that future generations have access to their roots and a profound understanding of the impact Jewish contributions have had on society. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l so beautifully put it, “Judaism is bigger than any of us, yet it is made by all of us. And though Jews were and are a tiny people, today a mere fifth of a percent of the population of the world, we have made a contribution to civilization out of all proportion to our numbers.” It’s time to celebrate that!

But a museum is much more than a place to preserve dusty artifacts. It creates a sense of belonging. Museums have a magical ability to make visitors feel connected to a broader narrative, fostering a sense of unity within society. A Jewish museum in London would serve as a gathering place for both Jews and non-Jews, a space to learn, engage, and appreciate the diversity and richness of Jewish culture. It acts as a bridge, bringing communities together, encouraging dialogue, understanding, and ultimately nurturing a more inclusive and cohesive society. In a world where our sense of belonging is questioned, especially in the face of challenges, a museum offers a connection to our shared story. For Jews in the UK and visitors alike, it’s a tale of immigration, resilience, survival, success, and hopefully, acceptance.

Let’s not forget that museums are hotspots for sparking important conversations and promoting education. A Jewish museum becomes a catalyst for dialogue about Jewish history, culture, and identity. It provides a platform for scholarly research, educational programs, and public events that shed light on misconceptions and combat antisemitism. By offering accurate information and sharing personal stories, a museum contributes to a more tolerant and accepting society. So, let’s keep the conversation alive!

Now, we can’t deny the sheer fun and engagement that museums offer. They provide a tangible and immersive experience beyond reading books or browsing the internet. A Jewish museum in London would let visitors dive into the past, engaging with artifacts, photographs, artworks, and multimedia displays. It’s not just about observing; it’s about participating. Interactive activities, workshops, and guided tours would create a dynamic and captivating learning environment for people of all ages. You can touch, feel, and truly connect with the fascinating stories of British Jewry.

But here’s the kicker: despite London being home to numerous world-class museums, it’s mind-boggling that a city with such historical significance will from the 1st of August lack a dedicated Jewish museum.

So, what’s the solution? Is it as simple as taking action? The absence of a Jewish museum in London cannot be brushed aside or postponed. It’s time for the government, philanthropists, and the wider community to come together and prioritize the re-establishment and relocation of this much-needed museum, whether through funding, collaboration, or advocacy, the process must be expedited. I don’t believe that waiting five years is an option, at a time when we must advocate strongly for our community.

A Jewish museum in London is a testament to the enduring Jewish presence in the United Kingdom and a vibrant celebration of the contributions made by the Jewish community. It provides a space for an immersive, educational, and downright enjoyable experience; fostering understanding, tolerance, and unity among diverse communities.

It should be situated in the heart of London, close to other museums and galleries, and cultural centers; establishing its vital importance to the ecosystem of British cultural and societal development. The urgency to re-establishing a Jewish museum in London cannot be underestimated. It represents a crucial step towards preserving history, shaping identity, and building a more inclusive and exciting future. Can we unite, take action, and ensure that the stories and heritage of British Jewry are shared and celebrated for generations to come?

About the Author
Ilana Epstein is a dedicated member of the senior rabbinic team at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, partnering with her husband Daniel. As a Educator of Jewish history, culture and tradition, she imparts her knowledge and passion to the community. Ilana studied at Yeshiva University Stern College, where she acquired a strong foundation in her field. She was selected for the inaugural cohort of the prestigious Rabbi Sacks Scholars programme. With a deep appreciation for the beauty of Judaism, Ilana seamlessly connects the significance of small traditions to the grand tapestry of Jewish history, fostering a profound sense of belonging and understanding within the community.
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